The Brothers Grimm would have you believe that I was a bloodthirsty crone. That I built a cottage of gingerbread in the woods to lure small children, that I emprisoned Hansel and enslaved Gretel and died a terrible death in the flames of my own oven. That the children were cruelly mistreated and escaped only by their own cleverness. That I deserved my fate.
I don't begrudge the storytellers their livelihood; let them tell their tales as they will. For all I know, there lived such a witch, and such children, and all received such a fate as they deserved. But that is their story, not mine.
There was no gingerbread cottage in the woods, nor famine in the land. It was a time of plenty, and I lived in a fine, prosperous town. Mine was a dwelling of timber, with rooms upstairs and a shop below.
No potions, no charms. I dealt in sweets, in candied pleasures. Sugar mice for the children. Turkish delight and cocoa-dusted truffles for the lovers. Jordan almonds for the brides. The closest I ever came to a cauldron was a copper panning kettle. The only herb I kept was a pot of horehound, used in comfits to soothe a sore throat.
Perhaps it wasn't seemly for a woman with an unlined face and no grey in her hair to keep a shop alone. Even if I wore a band of gold threaded on a silver chain about my neck, and told those who asked that I had lost my husband to the war. The ring was my father's, the chain my mother's, and both of them long in the ground.
So I lied about being a widow. What of it? There are worse sins.
They weren't children. Gretel may not yet have been of marrying age, and Hansel still seeking a bride, but their days of short trousers and pigtails were long gone by the time they came to town.
Their father, a wealthy merchant, had been a widower. For his second wife, he chose a woman young and fair and vain. A fall from his horse made her a widow a bare month after the wedding feast. She had left her hometown to marry him. Upon his death, she chose to return, and her dead husband's children had no choice but to follow.
She had a weakness for crystallised violets. Her lady's maid had a wagging tongue. I knew of Hansel and Gretel well before either set foot in my shop.
Hansel came to me for a lover's tokens, the same as any young man of courting age in town. Boxes of marrons glacés tied in bright ribbons. Silvery coffrets of blackcurrant pastilles. Curls of chocolate-dipped orange peel, nestled in golden paper. His manner was gentle, his coin generous. I was glad for his custom, and so I took the time to listen when he spoke.
He told me of his sister Gretel, trapped in a household with a stepmother young enough to be her sister and too vain to treat her with anything but scorn. Sometimes, his gilded boxes of calissons and mendiants would be joined by a paper sack of sugar mice, though he ruefully admitted that Gretel preferred to steal crystallised violets from her stepmother out of spite.
In midwinter he brought me roses. Not a bouquet of blushing long-stemmed blooms sheathed in fine paper, but an untidy bunch of full-blown crimson blossoms wrapped in canvas. I asked them as a favor of him, for he had spoken of his family's hothouse, and my supply of rosewater had waned. I would have paid him, but he wouldn't accept my coin. Instead, I gave him a parcel of candied gingerroot, for he mentioned that Gretel had fallen ill with a cold.
Gretel came to me some weeks later. I knew her for who she was without asking her name. I read it in her clever, curious eyes. She told me she liked candied gingerroot better than sugar mice. She insisted that her brother had no sweetheart, that his boxes of buttered caramels and sugared figs became the servants' spoils. She had come to see what secrets I might be hiding.
At first I only spoke to her of my craft, describing the tricks of cutting toffee, explaining the art of whipping marshmallow sap. Later, I taught her to form rabbits and pigs from marzipan, fingers quick and light. She helped me crystalise violets in the spring, carefully turning the fragile clusters on their drying racks. She stole out early on summer mornings and I showed her how to choose the brightest, plumpest berries for pâtes de fruits.
She didn't speak of her father or her stepmother. I never asked.
With autumn came pressed cider and bonfires of crackling leaves. The streets were bright with lanterns, and spirits high. The townsfolk had coin in their pockets, and were eager to spend it. My days were busy, and I dreamed of sugar at night.
I had promised to teach Gretel to make candied apples once they were plentiful at the market, but she remained absent, even when the stalls were piled high. Hansel, too, had vanished, and I wondered if perhaps his courting had borne fruit, if a match had not been made. I could have asked the lady's maid when she came for her mistress' crystallised violets, but I chose to hold my tongue. I would hear soon enough, should there be call for Jordan almonds.
In the days before All Hallows Eve, I fashioned a house from gingerbread. A house with a steep gabled roof and wide eaves, embellished with scrolls of royal icing and silvered dragées. A house with windows of poured sugar, a chimney of mixed glacé fruits, and a harvest wreath of marzipan on the chocolate-painted front door. I made the house for my shop window: a beacon to draw young lovers on evening walks, a wonder to entice children to marvel and press their noses against the pane. A proof of my craft, to bring them inside.
The night before All Hallows Eve, Gretel knocked upon my door.
In a voice like stone, she told me Hansel had joined a merchant ship sailing for foreign lands. Her stepmother sought to betroth Gretel to a man both rich and cruel, and without her brother to stay her hand, the match would be made. She swore that this was my doing, that I had driven him away and doomed her to a hopeless fate. Did I not see that the boxes upon boxes of sweets were his excuse to speak with me, the winter roses a lover's offering? What good did it serve for me to pine for my lost husband as he rotted in the ground?
She left without waiting for an answer. As she passed through the door, she turned back briefly - to warn me that I would be sorry.
Gretel's words were mad fancies, bred of fear and sorrow. Hansel had made his escape, and had Gretel asked, I would have offered her a way to do the same. I would have told her that I was no widow, that the falsehood kept me free to practice the craft I loved. She had learned my lessons well. She could find her own way.
Let it be known that I did not spurn Hansel, for if he thought well upon me, he never said a word. I admit I would have turned him away had he asked. Though he spoke kindly, I had no love to spare for a husband.
I candied apples that night, dipping each fruit in molten sugar crimson with cochineal. Rows like a regiment of soldiers lined up along my workbench, awaiting an onslaught of teeth and tongue. When I set the last apple on the bench, shining in its sweet shell, I thought a full night of sleep well-earned.
Late in the night, a crash startled me awake.
In my workroom, I found candied apples tumbled all over the floor. Gretel stood at the bench with a mallet in hand, the house a wreck of crumbled icing and broken gingerbread. I came up behind her too quietly. Surprised, she turned and swung the mallet at my head. When I came to, the room was ablaze, the air filling with smoke and the scent of scorching sugar.
I don't believe Gretel lit the fire. More likely that she knocked the panning kettle into the fireplace and scattered the burning embers in her haste to flee. Whether she found her betrothal to a cruel and wealthy landowner punishment or penance, I couldn't say. I know nothing further of Hansel, either.
As for my fate, I will let you decide if it was deserved. I escaped the fire with my life, but lost my craft. Burns left my hands scarred and trembling, too ruined for delicate work.
There is still no cottage in the woods. I started afresh in another town. No sweets, no candied pleasures. I deal in bread, a plain trade of yeast and flour. No iced buns for the children, nor brioche for the lovers, but boules and baguettes for ordinary folk. Now that my hair is completely grey and my face fully lined, I no longer lie about being a widow, for no-one cares to ask.
And if on All Hallows Eve I should make biscuits studded with chocolate and candied gingerroot, in memory of the craft I lost, that is no-one's business but my own.
Ginger Chocolate Chip Cookies
Mars and Hershey's might do for the trick-or-treaters, but these make for far more pleasant nibbling if you're waiting to hand out candy at the door.
(Makes one dozen. Dough will freeze.)